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What is Tartar Sauce?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Tartar sauce is a thick, creamy sauce that is traditionally served with seafood, especially fried seafood. It can also be served with other fried foods, and some people like to use a version as a salad dressing. Many markets carry commercially-prepared sauces, but it can also be easily made at home. Home cooks can manipulate the ingredients to taste, developing a product that meets their precise needs.

The history of tartar sauce is a bit tangled. It appears to have been developed by the French as a sauce for steak tartare, a famous French dish with thinly chopped raw steak, and at some point, the name was changed to “tartar.” In some regions of the world, people continue to use the French spelling. It appears to date to the 1800s, although similar sauces have been made as far back as the 1600s.

The key ingredient in this sauce is mayonnaise, which is classically mixed with a pickle relish. Other ingredients, such as capers, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, horseradish, chopped hard boiled eggs, olive, vinegar, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce may also be added, depending on taste and regional tradition. It is generally kept thick, rather than being allowed to turn runny, so that it will adhere readily to food.

This sauce has a tangy, creamy, rich flavor. The mayonnaise keeps it cool in flavor, making it especially suitable for fried foods as a counterpoint, and when lots of acidic ingredients are added, tartar sauce can be almost mouth-puckering, a trait that some people enjoy. It can be used as a dipping sauce or served directly on food, although the sauce can soften the breading on fried foods, making it soggy if it sits too long. The sauce may also be tossed with vegetables to make a simple salad.

Most cooks recommend blending tartar sauce at least an hour before it is to be used, and refrigerating it. This gives the flavors a chance to mellow and blend, with the seasoning being adjusted as needed right before service. The sauce should ideally stay refrigerated as much as possible to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, although the high acid level does help to inhibit bacterial growth. It can keep for up to a week, with commercial versions including stabilizers that keep the product good for weeks or months after opening.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By GiraffeEars — On Jun 15, 2011

@chicada- My tartar sauce ingredient list is somewhat different from the average. I have a friend that makes incredible marinated olive tapenade. The chunky tapenade is loaded with olives, garlic, celery, hot peppers, and spices. I mix this tapenade with olive oil mayonnaise and a little lemon juice to make a nice light tartar sauce. The sauce is delicious served with seared diver scallops, grilled fish, and grilled shrimp. It is a little different but it works very well with some dishes.

By ValleyFiah — On Jun 14, 2011

@Chicada- I would recommend that you play around with this recipe a little bit, but here is the ingredient list for one that I make that is popular with the family. I do not actually measure the ingredients so just make the proportions suitable for your tastes.

Mix about a cup of mayonnaise with a heaping spoon of chopped pickles (I use a food processor). Next, mix in the same amount of minced onion and minced carrot shreds. Mix in a small spoon full of sugar and a squeeze of lemon. Chill until you are done cooking your meal and enjoy with a slice of lemon. This is a simple recipe for tartar sauce.

By chicada — On Jun 11, 2011

Can anyone give me a good tartar sauce recipe? I read this article and realized that I am paying as much for a jar of tartar sauce as I am for a jar of mayonnaise five times the size. Also, I have not found a tartar sauce that i think is great. They all taste a little too artificial to me.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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